Don't Look Up Review
David Patrick Schranck Jr. #film review
On Christmas Eve 2021, Netflix released the latest film from comedic writer-director Adam McKay, Don’t Look Up. The film, written and directed by McKay with David Sirota (a former Bernie Sanders advisor) receiving a story credit, follows two Michigan State University astronomers, Dr. Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and PhD student Kate Diabiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who discover a comet that will impact the Earth in six months and is large enough to cause a mass-extinction event. They set out to convince apathetic politicians and media to take it seriously in order to save the planet. The plot is a satirical allegory about the climate crisis and resistance from those in power to take it seriously despite its dire threat. This picture features a stacked, all-star cast including the aforementioned DiCaprio and Lawrence along with Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Mark Rylance, Rob Morgan, Ariana Grande, and Kid Cudi (credited with his birth name Scott Mescudi) among others.
McKay’s newest film follows in his trend over the last few years of directing Oscar-bait, political comedies. The first picture in this series of sorts was 2015’s The Big Short, which was based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis about the 2007/2008 financial crisis and won him the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He followed this with 2018’s Vice, starring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, which also received multiple Oscar nominations. This direction for his career is a slight departure from his roots, coming to fame as the co-writer and director of some of Will Ferrell’s most iconic comedies, such as the Anchorman films, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. These movies, while beloved by audiences, were not critical and awards darlings like his more recent releases have been. From the perspective of this humble critic, it seems that after basking in the light of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ honor and glory, McKay has had a bit of an Icarus moment with Don’t Look Up.
The film falls flat primarily on the basis of its screenplay. Despite being a comedy, the vast majority of the jokes in the movie didn’t evoke any laughter or amusement from me. The humor is usually dull, uninspired, and derivative. Additionally, I take much issue with the political commentary that the film seeks to advance. I don’t disagree with the film’s basic assessment that Washington, business, tech, and media power players are corrupt, apathetic to catacylsmic crises, incompetent, and generally selfish. These specific critiques are commonly acknowledged to be true and seem pretty obvious. But, the movie smugly beats the audience over the head with these same few points continually over the course of its unnecessary and protracted 2 hour and 18 minutes length. It seems that McKay and Sirota thought their very trite takes were somehow revelatory and vital, warranting the endless and annoying repetition. Meryl Streep’s President Janie Orlean, an amalgamation of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, along with her son and Chief of Staff Jason Orlean (portrayed by Jonah Hill) seemed like they should have been two of the funniest characters of the movie. But despite the best efforts of Streep and Hill, McKay fails to make them compelling or sufficiently humorous. They seemed to be reminiscent of the vapid resistance liberal parodies of Trump World from the likes of SNL and the Trevor Noah-era Daily Show during the Trump presidency. Moreover, the type of satirical humor that the screenplay seeks to utilize was previously done much more deftly and cleverly by TV series like Veep and Silicon Valley and films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
I also found the message the plot sends about the climate crisis to be offbase, overly simplistic, too fatalistic, and toothless. The film basically argues that despite the American government’s fundamental inability to effectively govern and adequately respond to crises, that because they are the only “legitimate” power in the world and that we, the average person in the audience, have no recourse to stop disaster from occurring. The only reference made in the film to quite literally anyone else in the world even attempting to seriously address the comet is a last-ditch social media campaign that leads nowhere led by DiCaprio and Lawrence’s characters after all their other efforts fail and a passing joke about China, Russia, and India working together to attempt to deflect the comet but ultimately failing miserably. In the movie’s final act, the United States and a tech conglomerate called BASH, ran by a billionaire and political donor named Peter Isherwell (an eccentric character who seems like a mix between Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerburg played by Mark Rylance), unsuccessfully attempts to cause the comet to explode in a way in which the rare-earth minerals that it contains can be recovered and exploited for profit. This failure inevitably causes the death of almost the whole of humanity while the elite escape on a spaceship that sends them deep into space to an Earth- like planet. This narrative shows no examples of average people coming together and attempting to meaningfully address the crisis themselves and no revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the people in power who seek to carry out a plan to address the comet that will inevitably end in complete disaster. This specific point strikes me as rather unrealistic and doomerist to me, but also is tellingly a reflection of the creators’ banal radlib politics. Additionally, the movie doesn’t sufficiently point out capitalism’s central role in undermining action on climate change. Mark Rylance’s Peter Isherwell character is the stand-in for corporate power in the film, but he is framed more as an individual example of CEOs’ arrogance and greed as opposed to being more representative of the rot of capitalism as a whole. The implication seems to be that capitalism just needs to be more regulated and that wealthy donor money needs to be kept out of politics as opposed to coming to the conclusion that capitalism is inherently detrimental and must be overthrown. I must also take issue with the film’s portrayal of social media. The movie presents social media as being too reactionary and celebrity obsessed to actually meaningfully reflect on and respond to the crisis. McKay’s assessment seems to have a degree of truth to it, but it’s still far too superficial and lacking in nuance. The screenplay was incredibly frustrating and dissatisfying to me to say the least.
When it comes to the other aspects of the film, in most respects, it’s either just passable or unremarkable. The performances from the ensemble aren’t particularly noteworthy despite certainly having no lack of talent among them. The editing can be choppy and odd at times, including some continuity errors that are quite apparent. Composer Nicholas Britell delivers a catchy and enjoyable score that suits the film well, but his work is pretty consistently excellent so this is to be expected. The effects are also of better quality than I would’ve expected for a Netflix film. There’s even a song by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi called “Just Look Up” that seems to be a glaringly evident vehicle for a Best Original Song nomination at the Oscars and a thinly veiled justification for the inclusion of the two musicians in the cast.
Despite being written and directed by an Academy Award winner who claims to be a democratic socialist and has appeared on Chapo Trap House and having an advisor to the most successful socialist politician in American history being credited as having contributed to the story, the politics of the film are painfully liberal and stale. Both McKay and Sirota have attempted to portray critics of the film as simply being disgruntled people who don’t care about climate change. This is utterly ridiculous and asinine. They made a shitty movie that failed to achieve its most basic goals and they can’t accept that. Despite all of this, the film has been having a successful awards season so far, getting nominations from the Golden Globes, the SAG Awards, and the National Board of Review and being seen as a likely Best Picture nominee at the Oscars. This awards recognition for the film showcases once again how elite Hollywood liberals will eat up anything with the veneer of high-minded, forward thinking politics even though the films they choose to herald as “message” films tend to still perpetuate false, damaging, shallow, and/or backwards ideas. Suffice to say, I do not recommend this film. If you want to watch a film about the climate crisis that’s truly captivating and intelligent, watch Paul Schrader’s First Reformed from 2017 instead. I give Don’t Look Up a rating of two out of five stars.